Like most right-thinking kids, I was never one to turn down a trip to 31 Flavors or Dairy Queen, but it was Prince Pückler's Homemade Ice Cream in Eugene, Ore., that was the source of my most memorable childhood scoops: mint-chip, Bittersweet Nugget, turtle.... Routine trims to my Dorothy Hamill haircut at the Hair Loft were always followed by a visit next door to Pückler's; it was a package deal.
In fact, one of my very first jobs was dishing up the not-so-homemade (but still pretty darn good) Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors, where I sported a pink polo shirt and brown visor. Paying no heed to the golf ball-sized portions mandated by the manager, I packed teeming cones and dishes with B-R's unparalleled Peanut Butter 'n' Chocolate and Pralines 'n' Cream. It's so easy to be generous with something that doesn't belong to you, isn't it?
But the ice-cream scene in Portland these days is decidedly chilly. Not since the closing of Rose's on Northeast Fremont Street and Roberto's downtown in the Galleria several years ago have I enjoyed a scoop of ice cream in Portland from a shop making its own product. Sure, some places serve ice cream from Oregon dairies like Umpqua and Tillamook, but nobody is making the cold and creamy stuff in house. That distinction is important. Last summer, I served as an ice cream recipe tester for renowned pastry chef David Lebovitz's newest cookbook. I was "assigned" to make several original ice-cream recipes, from fresh roasted banana to rich coffee (which I made from Stumptown beans) to smooth, creamy cinnamon. Their taste matched their names, with none of the fillers or stabilizers that mainstream ice cream makers often use, and which mask the ingredients. But even though making homemade ice cream is a snap, I don't always have the foresight (most ice cream bases must chill thoroughly before being churned in the machine) to keep it consistently on hand. And so my quest for real Portland ice cream began.
Several trivia sites (dripstik.com, portlandneighborhood.com) denote Portland as one of the highest per-capita ice cream-consuming cities in the U.S. This includes grocery and convenience-store purchases, however, which account for roughly 40 percent of total ice cream sales, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. Yet there are only about 120 stores selling ice cream or gelato by the scoop in the Portland area (the bulk of them Baskin-Robbins franchises). Few are selling locally produced ice cream, and even fewer sell their own housemade ice cream. For a city proven to scream for ice cream, the lack of reverence we pay to the sweet, cold stuff is both confusing and troubling. The absence of housemade ice cream is a glaring omission in a city that prides itself on wonderful, fresh, artisan food. Where's our Prince Pückler's?
Portland does have several gelato shops, but only a few of them are making it entirely from scratch—others use a flavor base, sometimes shipped in from distant locations, that dulls the taste. The main distinction between Italian gelato and American-style ice cream is that the former is made from whole milk instead of cream and has less air whipped in, resulting in a denser yet lighter-in-calories ice cream. I wondered why Portlanders prefer gelato, and 23Hoyt chef Christopher Israel offered his two cents.
"Gelato is Italian, and Italy sounds sexier than just 'ice cream,' so people are attracted to it more than they might be to traditional, old-fashioned ice cream," muses Israel. "Given this city's use of local products...it is surprising that a small, hand-produced ice cream hasn't happened in Portland yet."
But wait: This glaring vacancy in Portland's ice cream community will soon be filled. As early as late September, Eva Bernhard will open Cool Moon Ice Cream Company on Northwest 11th Avenue and Johnson Street, across from Jamison Square. Bernhard, who's worked in landscape architecture as well as the catering industry, will create housemade "super-premium ice cream," which, as she explains, is common industry parlance for the higher-fat, "American-style" product. She will incorporate high-end chocolate, seasonal fruits and other quality ingredients to create such flavors as amarena cherry with chocolate and pine nuts, and saffron pistachio. Another drool-worthy idea? Bernhard plans to offer "vanilla flights," which allow customers to sample ice creams made with different vanilla varieties, such as Madagascar, Tahitian and Mexican. But what about Portland's gelato bias? "The popularity of gelato-style ice cream may have to do with the fact that it is generally made on a smaller scale," Bernhard explains. "As a result, people associate gelato with higher flavor intensity and overall quality." Not for long.
Where to go until Cool Moon opens? Right now, ice creams are available in an array of PDX venues, from restaurants to gourmet food stores, each one having its own place on the ice cream map of Portland. OK, it's true that none of us will be suffering from a lack of frozen, deliciously flavored butterfat anytime soon. However, I will continue to store the canister of my ice cream machine in the freezer, on deck and ready to perform its duty at a moment's notice. And although a cone of Tillamook or Umpqua or isn't exactly a chore to choke down, nothing beats a scoop of fresh ice cream.
To get homemade ice cream in Portland, it seemed I would need to go to...Vancouver? At Ice Cream Renaissance (2108 Main St., Vancouver, Wash., 360-694-3892), sit at a table and choose from a menu of inventive parfaits and sundaes (Botticelli Brownie Sundae), or take a cone or dish of fresh honey lavender or Peanut Butter Blitz to go.
Many Portlanders are taken in by the ooh-la-la factor of Pix Patisserie (3402 SE Division St., 232-4407, and 3901 N Williams Ave., 282-6539), which offers a short list of flavors like mocha and fig with port wine. At $3.50 a dish, they should taste as good as they sound. Unfortunately, however, they are often grainy and lacking in flavor. Coming soon: Cool Moon Ice Cream Company (Northwest 11th Avenue and Johnson Street) is slated to open in early fall 2007.
While not providing a homemade product, there are several shops that stock ice cream made by large but local dairies. Grab a stool at the counter of Paulsen's Pharmacy (4246 NE Sandy Blvd., 287-1163, est. 1918) or make your way up to Skyline Restaurant (1313 NW Skyline Blvd., 292-6727) for old-fashioned milkshakes, floats, ice cream sodas or scoops, all made from local Alpenrose ice cream. Giant Drive Inn (15840 Boones Ferry Road, 636-0255) in Lake Oswego uses ice cream from Portland's Sunshine Dairy, and Little River Cafe (315 SW Montgomery St. #310, 227-2327) on the Westside Esplanade scoops cones from 20 different flavors of Umpqua.
The true star among the locally made varieties is the aforementioned Prince Pückler's, based in Eugene (1605 E 19th Ave., 541-344-4418). A handful of flavors can be found hidden away in a few coffee shops around Portland, which use it mainly in shakes, with no mention of its origin. But if you ask (and you should), they'll give you a scoop in a cup at Java Nation (4130 SW 117th Ave., Beaverton, 520-8759) and the Coffee People at Portland International Airport. Look for it soon at Jim and Patty's Coffee, which is planning a short move a few blocks down Fremont from its current location (5015 NE Fremont St., 284-2121).
Not exactly where you might head if a day at the pool or the beach has left you with dirty feet and sand in your hair, but several upscale restaurants regularly include a couple of housemade flavors on their dessert menus. Roux (1700 N Killingsworth St., 285-1200) recently featured an impossibly creamy and rich honey vanilla as well as a candied almond variety. The Stumptown Coffee ice cream at Clyde Commons (1014 SW Stark St., 228-3333) might even be as good as the one I made in my own machine, and the cardamom and coconut at Siam Society (2703 NE Alberta St., 922-3675) are exceptional. Really, most any restaurant menu touting a homemade product is a safe bet for a scoop of high-quality, delicious ice cream.
Gelato shops seem to be popping up at a disproportionate rate in Portland. But like ice cream, gelato can range in quality and taste. Via Delizia (1105 NW Marshall St., 225-9300) and Eugene's Stella Gelato (available by the scoop at New Seasons' Mountain Park, Cedar Hills and Raleigh Hills stores) create their bases from scratch, with ingredients like hand-pulled espresso and fresh-squeezed lemons. Freshness and taste reports on Alotto Gelato (931 NW 23rd Ave., 228-1709) have also been positive.
OTHER SWEET STUFF
Portland's Ruby Jewel ice cream sandwiches (rubyjeweltreats.net) are not to be missed. Made with all-Northwest ingredients (honey, mint, milk from Lochmead Dairy), they can be purchased at the Portland Farmers Market as well as at several grocery stores throughout the state. Bonus: Ruby Jewel's ice cream is now available in milkshakes at Elephants Deli (115 NW 22nd Ave., 299-6304). Blueplate Lunch Counter and Soda Fountain (308 SW Washington St., 295-2583) serves milkshakes and sundaes, as well as old-fashioned sodas and floats, using ice cream from Eugene's Cascade Glacier Dairy.
Joanna Miller was a recipe tester for David Lebovitz's new book, The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas and Sweet Accompaniments (Ten Speed Press, 246 pages, $24.95), which is available at local bookstores. You can read more about Miller's own sweet obsessions by searching her name on sugarsavvy.net.